Sunday, 29 May 2016

Can Science Answer Every Question?



In my last post I discussed our current mental environment which champions science above all other forms of human understanding. I noted that the most extreme version of this attitude is scientism; the view that science, alone, is the only valid source of human knowledge. Or, as the philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it:

"... the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything . . . [that] Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about." 

A view which is also shared by many prominent scientists. A recent example of this can be found in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's popular book The Grand Design. In it they maintain that:

". . . philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientist have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge." 

In this post I seek to show that science is well suited to answer a great number of questions . . . just not all questions. There are a number of questions--philosophical questions--the scientific method, in principle, can not answer. Thus, the proponent of scientism needlessly undercuts her ability to answer many questions of great importance. To make my point crystal clear, let's begin with an illustration.

Metal-Detectorism . . . It's So Hot Right Now


Consider this bit of fiction inspired by the philosopher Edward Feser. A group of metal-detecting enthusiasts in Blackpool conclude--after years of successfully discovering metal objects on the beach--that metal detectors, alone, are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects. Let's call their view, metal-detectorism.

Given metal-detectorism, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector. We can formalize the argument ( call it A1) thus:

(1) If metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects, then the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector.
(2) Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects (i.e., metal-detectorism).
(3) Therefore, the only reliable way to detect the presence of a physical object is by means of a metal detector. 

Now, metal detectors are fantastic at detecting the presence of metal; in fact, they are designed specifically for that task. Suppose I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism the following question:

a. How many metal chairs are in Lufkin Coffee?

To answer this question reliably, we'd need to use a metal detector to locate and count the number of metal chairs. Fortunately, metal detectors are perfectly suited for this task! So far, so good . . . but what if I asked the proponents of metal-detectorism this follow up question:

b. How many wooden tables are in Lufkin Coffee?

Now we've got problems. A metal detector is not designed to detect wooden objects. How, then, is the proponent of metal-detectorism to respond? Well, there are at least four options: (1) They can dismiss question b as a pseudo-question, (2) they can determine that questions like b, which require us to locate non-metallic objects, can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there are no wooden tables at Lmfkin Coffee", (3) they can provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., citing the number of metal tables in Lmfkin--or, (4) they can abandon metal-detectorism and use some other method to determine how many wooden tables are in the cafe.

At the end of the day, metal-detectorism severely, and irrationally, limits our ability to detect objects. It just doesn't follow that metal detectors are the only reliable instrument for detecting objects because they successfully locate metallic objects on the beach all the time! Consequently, adopting this position seems to have undercut our ability to adequately answer questions like b.

But, what does all this have to do with scientism? Well, everything.    

Scientism . . . Relentlessly Narrow-Minded  


Given scientism, we must accept that the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method. Why? Because the only reliable source of knowledge is the scientific method. We can formalize this argument ( call it A2) thus:

(1) If science is the only reliable source of knowledge, then the only reliable answer to any     question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.
(2) Science is the only reliable source of knowledge (i.e., scientism)
(3) Therefore, the only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method. 

Assuming, for the moment, this argument is sound, let's take a look at a set of questions. Call this set-S:

a. Why do objects fall to the ground when released from a great height?
b. What causes the moon to orbit the earth?
c. Why do woodpeckers have long beaks?
d. What atoms combine to create a water molecule?
e. How helpful are people to strangers on the subway? 

The questions in set-S are perfectly suited for the scientific method. The subject of each question (e.g., the moon or woodpeckers, or water molecules, etc) is open to empirical observation and testing; and any answer provided to the questions in set-S is open to empirical falsification. This means we can develop models to explain the given phenomena in each question and test our answers to see if they line up with our observations.

So far, so good . . but not all questions are equal. Consider the questions in set-P:

a. Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?
b. What is a cause?
c. What is knowledge?
d. Does your personal identity persist through change over time?
e. How helpful ought people be to strangers on the subway?

There is no empirical test one can run to determine the nature of knowledge, or what the laws of physics are, or what a cause is, or whether or not the same individual person persists through change over time, or how someone ought to behave in any given circumstance. We can observe regularities like an apple falling from a tall building; we can not observe the 'laws of physics'. We can infer that the force of gravity causes the moon to orbit the earth and then test this theory with observation; but we can not empirically observe the abstract universal concept: 'cause'. We can observe that an individual undergoes constant change through time; but we can not observe the ontological ground of that person (that which remains unchanged and constitutes the persons essential identity). Neither can we use the scientific method to conclude that a persons personal identity does not persist through change over time. Finally, we can observe how people do in fact behave to strangers on a subway but not how they ought to behave. I can't observe and test a universal moral imperative.

Furthermore. to do science we must presuppose the answers to many of these questions. For example, we must presuppose we can obtain knowledge of the world, and must even assume some basic notion of what knowledge is. We must also presuppose that the world is basically ordered (i.e., behaves in a regular law-like manor), and that there are causes and effects. However, these ideas are not the subject of scientific verification or falsification; rather, they must be assumed in order for scientific investigation to get off the ground.

It would seem, then, there are some questions science, in principle, can not answer. Questions with answers that can not be verified or falsified by the scientific method. It is not that scientists just need more time to run tests; the problem is that the scientific method is not designed to handle questions like the one's in set-P. No matter how long scientists work on it, or how many tests they run, they will never find an adequate answer. Just as someone using only a metal detector will never detect the presence of wooden tables at a cafe.

Yet, the proponents of scientism may still insist science can and must be used to find answers to questions like those in set-P. When this happens the proponents of scientism (like those of metal-detectorism), typically respond in one of four ways: (1) They dismiss such questions out of hand, labeling them pseudo-questions, (2) they determine such questions can only be answered in the negative--e.g., "there is no way that people ought to behave to strangers on the subway (nihilism)", (3) they provide a woefully inadequate answer--e.g., cite what some sociological study says about how people treat strangers on a subway--or, (4) they unwittingly abandon scientism and answer the questions philosophically.

Ironically, option (4) is precisely what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go for in their book The Grand Design. After lambasting philosophy and declaring its death (see the quote above) they go on to spend a significant chunk of their book attempting to answer question a in set-P--Do the laws of physics objectively exist, or are they merely constructs of the human mind?--philosophically. The sad thing is, they don't realize they are doing philosophy, and do not appear to be familiar with the vast body of philosophical literature on the subject. Hence, as many professional philosophers have pointed out, the Hawking/Mlodinow response to question a is riddled with problems.

Conclusion 


Scientism, like metal-detectorism, is needlessly, and irrationally, restrictive. Just as a metal detector is not designed to locate none metallic objects, the scientific method is not designed to answer philosophical questions (like those in set-P). No matter how long I search for wood, using only a metal detector, I will never find wood. Likewise, no matter how long I strive to answer questions like those in set-P using only the scientific method, I'll never find an adequate answer.

Having said all of this, one might object to what I've argued. It could be that premise (2) of A1--'Metal detectors are the only reliable instruments capable of detecting physical objects-is false. In contrast, it could be that premise (2) of A2--'Science is the only reliable source of knowledge'--is true. In other words, metal-detectorsim may be a faulty position when it comes to locating physical objects; but scientism may be the correct stance in epistemology. Thus, whether we like it or not, the truth of scientism might just compel us to accept the conclusion of A2: The only reliable answer to any question is one that has been arrived at by means of the scientific method.

I shall address this objection in my next post.





6 comments:

  1. Part 1 of 2

    Hi, Joshua,

    I have pondered how to respond to your post for some time now. I want to address some of my concerns about this post and then point you to a few references that tackle Feser's objections to scientism.

    Merriam-Webster defines "scientism" as (1) "methods and attitudes attributed to the natural scientist," and (2) "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation ...." You tackle your objections to scientism using the latter definition, but I would point out that definition (2) is unscientific. Scientists trust the methods of science because they give reliable, predictive results, and because they make science self-correcting. If the methods fail to work as expected, then most scientists will go back and ask numerous questions to discern why the methods failed, including:

    • Did I formulate my hypothesis correctly?
    • Did I test my hypothesis correctly?
    • Did I measure the optimal outcome? If yes, then did I use the correct instruments for measuring the outcome?
    • If I measured a suboptimal outcome, what outcome should I have measured?
    • How do I know which outcome (out of several) is most significant?

    In your example of "metal detectorism" above, I would argue that your objection to scientism is irrelevant. As a matter of sound practice, scientists should not conduct investigations the way that your hypothetical scientists did. The very first question that your scientists should have asked themselves was this: "Is my measuring device adequate to answer the question?" The answer is clearly "no." Simply asking "How many wooden chairs are in Lufkin Coffee?" leads to the conclusion that a metal detector is an incorrect measuring device.

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    1. Hey Robert, please forgive me for taking so long to respond to your insightful comment. The past two months have been incredibly busy for me. As a result, I've only just noticed your post.

      I'd like to respond to the last part of your comment. You say:

      "As a matter of sound practice, scientists should not conduct investigations the way that your hypothetical scientists did. The very first question that your scientists should have asked themselves was this: "Is my measuring device adequate to answer the question?" The answer is clearly "no." Simply asking "How many wooden chairs are in Lufkin Coffee?" leads to the conclusion that a metal detector is an incorrect measuring device."

      So, this is exactly the response a good scientist should make when faced with questions like those in set-P. The first question a scientist should ask herself when faced with a good philosophical question is 'is the scientific method adequate to answer the question?'. What I'm arguing is that the answer to this is: 'no, it is not. Philosophical questions require philosophical methods to be answered.'

      I think your comment only serves to confirm what I'm arguing in this post. Namely, that the scientific method is great at answering scientific questions (like those in set-S) but can not, in principle, answer philosophical ones (like those in set-P).

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but seems to me that we are in agreement on this important point.


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    2. Hi, Joshua,

      We're both busy I see. :-)

      We're in agreement ... sort of. Yes, the fact that I can frame a philosophical question means that I have a question science cannot answer. I can't measure philosophy. It's rather hard to pin a philosophical proposition inside a chamber and scan it to see what's inside the proposition. :-) So to that extent, yes, we are in agreement.

      Where we disagree is how we decide that the philosophical or theological question CAN be answered or the proposition objectively tested for accuracy. What has long frustrated me about philosophy and theology is that there are no *objective* measures to say "This answer is correct" and "That answer is close, but a bit off" and "That answer is balderdash."

      Even measures that claim to be objective are founded on subjective propositions. For example, "the Bible says...." presupposes that the Bible is objectively Truth, but history should cause us to question that supposition. Or we can say, "Tradition teaches...." but which tradition? by what line of transmission? Do we have an unbroken chain of custody for that tradition? etc.

      Can you understand how, for a person like me who is trained to analyze objectively back to root causes, this is more than a bit crazy-making? I accept that there are things that science simply cannot answer. When I get to those places in my analyses, I am content to say, "I don't know" rather than "God did it." Maybe God *did* do it, but I have no objective proof that He did or did not. I have only the mystery that I cannot yet answer.

      Ultimately, philosophy and theology operate subjectively on faith at some level. I would argue that even logicians operate on faith, since they suppose that their presuppositions are correct, even when they have no objective way of knowing that. Scientists operating as scientists, when they get back to mystery (or Mystery, if you will) don't default to God. They look deeper for answers, and they look for new truths that have been, up to that point, undiscovered. Scientists love logic, but scientists also *always* question everything that cannot be objectively measured, even logical presuppositions, and look for objective root causes.

      I do enjoy this conversation, and I look forward to further writing from you.

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  2. Part 2 of 2

    Confronted with this question, a competent scientist would engage in a repetitive series of questioning, hypothesizing, testing, and measuring to determine if wooden objects exist and whether and how they can be detected. Finally (assuming that wooden objects can be detected) the wooden tables would be counted. If it sounds like a painful process just to count the wooden tables in Lufkin Coffee, it is. On more important questions, though, scientism (using definition 1, not definition 2) is indispensable to the advancement of human knowledge. The questions I refer to include these:

    • What is a useful target in this bacterium that I can use to kill it?
    • What small molecule can I synthesize or discover to hit this target?
    • What genetic changes in this patient caused his/her cancer?
    • What are the most effective treatments for this particular cancer? What is the evidence that these treatments are effective?
    • How did modern man originate? Who or what are the ancestors of man?
    • Does modern man contain any Neanderthal DNA? What does this say about the origin of man?

    Philosophers and theologians argue that there are more ways of knowing than just the physical, and many of them use "scientism" as a snarl word to dismiss scientists' arguments. I have yet to find a philosopher or a theologian who can provide genuine proof that his or her arguments are correct. Logic without tangible proof is babbling. Put another way (using an aphorism I heard many years ago), "Logic is a great way to go wrong with confidence." Many scientists would be more willing to listen to philosophers and theologians if philosophers and theologians could offer proof that their arguments are correct.

    Finally, I offer you a few links in rebuttal to Edward Feser's arguments. I found these links while researching other people's objections to Feser's writings. They are NOT necessarily directly on point to your post, but they did help me think about and frame my concerns in responding to your post. (NB: The links have no particular order.)

    http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2013/03/25/a-reply-to-edward-feser/

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/an-aristotelian-proof-of-the-existence-of-god/

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/rosenhouse-on-feser-on-the-cosmological-argument/

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/hyper-skepticism-and-my-way-or-the-highway-fesers-extraordinary-post/

    http://theskepticzone.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-irrational-feser-part-1.html

    http://theskepticzone.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-irrational-feser-part-2.html

    Thanks for reading this far, Joshua. I'll be interested in your reply.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for these articles buddy; I made my reply to your first comment.

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    2. I look forward to further discussion, Joshua.

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